GCC head finalist has spent decades in Pioneer Valley, brings liberal arts background

  • Carla Oleska Submitted photo/GCC

Recorder Staff
Published: 5/2/2018 11:31:11 PM

GREENFIELD — Carla Oleska is a first-generation four-year college graduate, but she’s also a first-generation high school graduate.

Growing up in the parochial school system in Rhode Island, Oleska was able to use the education system as a way to elevate.

It was this upbringing that drove her to pursue a career in education, and brought her home to Community College of Rhode Island for her first teaching position. From there, she’s continued to move forward in a career that has been driven by a passion for the liberal arts education and centered around collaboration with peers.

“As a result of having that opportunity, I’ve always been dedicated to the value of education and every person, if they want it, should be able to pursue education,” Oleska said at a public forum Wednesday at Greenfield Community College. Her visit to campus was as one of five finalists to replace Bob Pura as president of the school when he steps away at the end of the academic year.

As the current vice president for institutional advancement at Elms College, Oleska has had her hand in local and regional educational endeavors for decades — including 22 years in administration and teaching at the college in Chicopee.

“Because of my experience at the community college, and because of my own background, I pursued my academic career to create programs that provided accessibility, persistence, success and career,” Oleska said.

Previously, she served as chief executive officer of the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts for eight years.

While in that role, Oleska received the “opportunity to really get to know the four counties in Western Massachusetts and, consequently, fell in love with Franklin County,” she said.

Serving as head of the foundation gave Oleska the opportunity to get a deep understanding for grant writing, something she noted she brings to the table.

An educator at the public forum Wednesday asked Oleska about the challenges that come with federal or state programs that give students certain amounts of time to graduate, sometimes leading to challenges of retention.

Oleska responded, it’s difficult and the faculty need to be there for the student, despite restrictions from Pell grants, or federal aid for students to pay for college.

When pressed on how she could defend that publicly, Oleska adamantly replied it’s time to place pressure on state and federal legislators to address the structural issues of the Pell grant.

“It’s unbelievable what it costs any community to have someone stop and/or fail out because we haven’t been realistic, as opposed to the economic benefit, which people will listen to, to a student succeeding,” Oleska said.

Beyond her knowledge in grant writing and the workings of the education system, Oleska — through her decades of experience in the Pioneer Valley — showed her familiarity with local and regional agencies, such as Community Action.

She has worked on piloting child care programs with local agencies, partnering to alleviate the barriers related to child care.

The goal is to always educate the student, Oleska stressed, which should remain the central focus for any teacher or administrator. That Greenfield Community College has a mission focused on providing the student with a liberal arts education is something in particular that drew Oleska to the school, years after finding her way through her own liberal arts education.

“I so definitely believe in the liberal arts, because that’s soul making,” Oleska said. “It’s all well and good to screw on a widget, in a very simple example, and once that industry changes, they’re out of a job, because they don’t need them to do that anymore. It’s a whole other thing to give a person the ability, the skill to do that, but then to also say, why are we doing this?”

The other finalists for the role of college president are Christopher Gilmer, Arlene Rodriguez, Yves Salomon-Fernandez and Julie White.

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